“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
We are responsible for the deaths of garment workers in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Just as we are responsible for the deaths of garment jobs in the United States. Our never-slaked appetite for more and cheaper consumer goods hurts the livelihoods and lives of millions of other people.
I always sound so preachy when I write something like this. I buy stuff I don’t need too — so I’m talking to myownself here, as well. I am a child (old man) of the Sixties and global ecological consciousness just won’t leave me.
What if we had fewer clothes, and better clothes? Made of good material by skilled workers who are treated and paid well, whether in the US or Bangladesh. What if companies made less profit? Top executives made fewer millions? Investors looked at human, not just financial, return? Business journalism measured and covered more than just financial factors? I know, I know, this is all so “Imagine,” so John Lennon.
The new pope, Francis, said he was shocked that many of the 400 workers killed in the garment-factory collapse in Bangladesh last week were paid about $40 a month. “This is called slave labor,” he said. Unfortunately, Francis speaks for too many of us. If we’re shocked at how poorly the people who work in the countries that are on the labels of our clothes are paid, we just haven’t been paying attention.
Because we don’t want to. We want to buy yet another shirt, cheap. We want to see our stock price go up. We want to collect another fat bonus. And we don’t want to know, don’t want to think about, whose shoulders or heads we’re standing on to get the endless “more” that we hunger for.
Many Southern writers have illuminated the toll that slavery and segregation took on the whites who enforced this inhuman behavior. They had to continually lie to themselves about the conditions they created for black people. “It’s better for them. They’re content and happy. It’s all they’re capable of. This is normal, what God intended.” Lie after lie, minute after minute, shrivels the soul.
I just read Devil in the Grove, which just won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s about the horror of lynchings in Florida after World War II, and about Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP fighting against the white supremacist hijacking of law-enforcement and the courts in the South. During one major trial in the early 1950s, a racist prosecutor comes to have respect for Marshall, and a white reporter covering the trial says she wishes Marshall and the prosecutor could sit down and have lunch together — but no restaurant in Ocala, Florida, where the trial was held, would serve a black man and a white man together. That was normal then. In my lifetime
Just as in my lifetime it’s normal to wear clothing made by people paid a pittance and working in conditions we would find appalling. If we looked.
We lie to ourselves that it’s okay. Okay that the gap between the rich and the poor in this country has been growing since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Okay that the gap between the rich in this country and the poor in the rest of the world is a wound wider than the Pacific. And widening.
My friend Ron Meador, environmental writer for MinnPost, on Earth Day this year recalled a conversation with the conservationist writer Scott Russell Sanders. Meador wrote of Sanders’s “wry suggestion that we might reframe our consumption habits with a slight shift of language:
‘As a first step in that direction, let us quit using the word “consumer” for a season and use instead the close synonym, “devourer.” Thus, the Office of Consumer Affairs would become the Office of Devourer Affairs. In schools, the study of consumer science, which used to be called home economics, would become devourer science. Savvy shoppers would subscribe to Devourer Reports. Pollsters would conduct devourer surveys. Newspapers would track the ups and downs of the devourer price index.'”
Devourer. We Americans are devourers of the world’s resources, gobbling far more than our share. I’ve quoted before on this blog the Dakota word Wasichu, which the Indians called the whites — “Takes all the fat.” The whites took the fat part — of the buffalo, of the land — and left the Indians with bones.
We can afford to pay a higher price for our clothes so that workers in the US and abroad can make decent wages. Top executives can afford to make only 100 times what the average worker makes, not 500 times. Companies can afford lower quarterly results if the company builds sustainable performance over the long haul.
Let’s stop lying to ourselves. This disparity between rich and poor, this growing suppurating gap, is not okay. The people working in sweatshops in smog-befouled cities are not happy with their place — no more than the blacks who were slaves or the blacks who rode the back of the bus were happy with theirs.
Choosing not to look — being shocked — is another way of lying to ourselves. Companies that were getting clothes from the Bangladesh factories are falling all over themselves saying “Oh we didn’t…” “Oh we don’t…” “Oh we’re pressing for safety standards…” For most companies, the hit to their reputations will not outweigh the boost to their bottom line that low wages and unsafe conditions provide.
Those workers are us. We are them. It’s in our hands. We can buy goods from companies that treat workers and the environment with respect. Those goods will cost a little more — so we can buy a little less. Better stuff. Better made. For more peace of soul. We can invest in companies that treat workers and the environment with respect. Maybe we get a smaller return. In money. But so much greater, in peace of soul.
Let’s stop being shocked.